WASHINGTON — When it comes to war, killing the enemy is an accepted fact. Even amid the sensation of the WikiLeaks.org revelations, that stark reality lies at the core of new charges that some American military commando operations may have amounted to war crimes.
RELATED:Wikileaks cries warcrimes
Among the thousands of pages of classified US documents released Sunday by whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.org are nearly 200 incidents that involve Task Force 373, an elite military special operations unit tasked with hunting down and killing enemy combatants in Afghanistan.
Denouncing suggestions that US troops are engaged in war crimes in Afghanistan, military officials and even war crimes experts said Monday that while ugly and uncomfortable, enemy hit lists are an enduring and sometimes unavoidable staple of war.
Some, however, cautioned that without proper controls that mandate the protection of innocent civilians, such targeted hits could veer into criminal activities.
Buried in the more than 91,000 documents are descriptions of Task Force 373's missions, laying bare graphic violence as well as mistakes, questionable judgments and deadly consequences — sometimes under fire, other times not.
In June 2007, the unit went in search of Taliban commander Qari Ur-Rahman. According to the files, US forces, under the cover of night, engaged in a firefight with suspected insurgents and called in an AC-130 gunship to take out the enemy.
Only later did they realize that seven of those killed and four of those wounded were Afghan National Police. The incident was labeled a misunderstanding, due in part to problems with the Afghan forces conducting night operations.
In another mission, members of Task Force 373 conducted a secret raid, hoping to snag al-Qaida commander Abu Laith al-Libi, who was believed to be running terrorist training camps in Pakistan's border region. Five rockets were launched into a group of buildings, and when forces moved into the destroyed area they found six dead insurgents and seven dead children. Al-Libi was not among the dead.
The summary of the incident says that initial checks showed no
indications that children would be there. And it quotes an Afghan
governor later saying that while the residents there are in shock, they
"understand it was caused ultimately by the presence of hoodlums — the
people think it is good that bad men were killed."
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who organized the release of the
classified documents, said he believes these are among "thousands" of US
attacks in Afghanistan that could be investigated for evidence of war
crimes, although he acknowledged that such claims would have to be
tested in court.
But even activists well versed in the realm of investigating war crimes
would not go that far.Amnesty:
Death of 7 children 'disturbing'
"I don't think this incident rises to the level of a war crime, but it
disturbs me greatly that seven children were killed," said Tom Parker,
policy director at Amnesty International USA.
The Afghanistan war, with its terrorist hit lists, counterinsurgency
battles and high-tech battle gear, presents difficult questions. "It is
really hard to know where assassination ends and war starts," said
Targeted military strikes, he said, are on the fringe of accepted
military practice during an armed conflict.
"This is a relatively new form of warfare that we're seeing now," he
said. "The technology takes you to a different place and raises
questions that just weren't there 20 years ago. A lot of these questions
don't have answers — they have a test of acceptability."
Parker voiced concerns that have hounded the military, the
administration and members of Congress over the past two years as the
war has escalated: How can the US avoid civilian casualties that
alienate the very population coalition forces are trying to win over in
order to defeat the insurgency?
"This is a war. The enemy is shooting at us, and we're shooting at
them," said Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state. "Are we
really suggesting that while the Taliban plant suicide bombs, we
shouldn't try to kill anybody?"
Smith said US troops are "aggressively targeting" the Taliban and
al-Qaida but that any "condemnation of our troops is completely wrong
and brutally unfair." Congress and the military, he said, have already
identified civilian casualties as a problem that must be corrected, and
military leaders have adjusted their war tactics to try and minimize the
Parker added that Americans may accept the idea of a military team going
after an enemy general, but when it's reduced to a hit list of
individual names, it becomes less palatable.
"Personalization makes people uncomfortable," said Parker.
But trying to kill or capture enemy leaders "is precisely what countries
do when they are at war," argued Juan Zarate, former senior
counterterrorism official in the Bush administration.
As the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, public support in the US and
abroad has begun to waver. And the counterinsurgency — which pits US
forces against bands of militants rather than another nation's army —
blurs the classic battle lines.
There also may be public confusion about the US government's secret hit
lists targeting militants.
The military's target list is different from a separate list run by the
CIA. The two lists may contain some of the same names — Osama bin Laden,
for instance — but they differ because the military and CIA operate
under different rules.
While the military can only operate in a war zone, the CIA is allowed to
carry out covert actions in countries where the US is not at war.
The CIA's target list came under scrutiny recently when it was revealed
that it now includes radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American
citizen believed to be hiding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki, who has emerged as a
prominent al-Qaida recruiter, was added to the list after US officials
determined that he had shifted from encouraging attacks on the US to
planning and participating in them.
Also, the CIA uses unmanned aircraft to hunt down and kill terrorists in
Pakistan's lawless border regions where the US military does not
The issue becomes murkier when elite military members participated in
joint operations with CIA units. In those cases, the military members
are assigned to the civilian paramilitary units and operate under the
CIA rules which allow them to take on missions outside of a war zone.
Last December Gen. David Petraeus, now the top US commander in
Afghanistan, made it clear the military was going to increase its
efforts to kill or capture enemy combatants considered irreconcilable.
Petraeus, who was then the head of US Central Command, said that more
"national mission force elements" would be sent to Afghanistan this
spring. He appeared to be referring to such elite clandestine units as
the Delta Force.
"There's no question you've got to kill or capture those bad guys that
are not reconcilable," he told Congress.